First time in history, traffic control at county airport
They are not traffic cops. They are safety observers.
Highly trained, with more than 100 years of air traffic control experience between them, three vigilant souls stand ready to keep planes, helicopters and any other traffic from danger by working from their custom built fifth wheel unit. They are now stationed at the Carbon County Airport, called in because of the heavy aviation traffic involved in fighting the Seeley fire.
"I built the very first unit for doing this from the ground up," said Titus "Stretch" Gail, President of Tower Tech, Inc. "It took the FAA five years to approve us to do this, but how could they not? We had the training, we had the equipment, and there was the need."
Gail, who spent more than three decades working as an air traffic controller, is very proud of the "retirement" business he has built. And right now he, Mark Thacker and Keith Kizziar are watching the skies and the runways around the Carbon airport.
They work from an elevated room on the back of the fifth wheel that is literally nothing but glass walls. They can see 360 degrees and have communications and navigation equipment on hand. Most importantly, they and their equipment are one of a kind. There is no other business that operates this kind of a unit in the United States.
For the first time in anyone's memory, Carbon Airport has an air traffic control system, albeit temporary. And for the three northern California residents, this is the first time outside of their home state performing these duties.
"We have worked a lot for the Forest Service and we do a few air shows a year as well," said Thacker.
Gail said that the Forest Service called him last Thursday night and said that there was so much air traffic between fire fighting units, which were battling multiple fires in the area, and normal air traffic that they needed him to bring his crew and equipment to Price. By 11 p.m. they were on the road and got to Carbon County the next day.
When he got here, Gail found the third longest runway in Utah in the middle of the high desert. "This is a big airport," he said. "When I looked at this airport and the size of the community it serves I was kind of surprised."
The unit is all there is when the men are on the road.
"We live in this trailer while we are working," said Kissiar. "We are totally self contained."
The unit features not only the 20 foot tower, but also underneath that a compartment for an ATV that they keep there for getting around airports they work at. The fifth wheel is a high tech, expensive toy hauler, as it could be described by locals.
The unit has two generators with one being a 6,000-watt diesel that will run for four days on the fuel that is stored in the fifth wheel. The other generator is a gas unit that acts as a backup.
The inside of the tower is not what most people would think. It doesn't have complicated radar screens or huge amounts of equipment, but communications gear and a lap top computer. There is not radar dish circling on top of the unit either.
Gail bought a specially designed Ford F-450 truck to haul the unit around California (and now, apparently, the west as well). The unit, without anything in it weighs between 15-16,000 lbs.
But the story here is not about the equipment or the tools but the men who act as a safety barrier between busy air traffic. While in the "tower," a plane talked with Thacker about getting ready for take off. It was morning and things were quiet, but later in the day things get more hectic.
The trio are veterans of air traffic control and their experience shows. Professional and obviously knowing what they are doing, they go about their business in a casual, but serious manner.